It was exactly 130 years ago this winter that the famous French diva made her long-awaited appearance in America. Thanks to a barrage of advance publicity and sulfurous rumors, Americans were dying to see the wicked Sarah Bernhardt, believed to be a painted femme fatale who had seduced every crowned head in Europe, not to mention the pope. Instead, they discovered an elegant young woman with a thrilling, highly musical voice and polished stagecraft.
When she finally came to the stage door after the 29 curtain calls of her opening New York performance, the mob scene was surreal: jostling, delirious fans tried to touch her, to snip a lock of her hair or snatch an ostrich plume from her hat. Men presented their shirt cuffs for her to autograph. Finding her pen out of ink, a hysterical girl with an autograph book plunged her teeth into her own wrist and dipped the point in her blood. Panicked, Sarah beat a retreat back to the theater, where she tore off her hat and chinchilla cloak, put them on her sister, and sent her out to impersonate her while she slipped out by another door.
Americans fell for Sarah and the feeling was mutual. “I adore this country,” she said, particularly admiring the “graceful independence” of American women. After her first visit in 1880, she crisscrossed the land in following years in eight more lengthy tours. Besides playing big-city theaters, she recited the alexandrine verse of French classics in huge rural tents, cornstalk stubble tearing at the frontier women’s Sunday best. At one Texas stop a cowboy rode up and asked for a seat. None was available until he pulled his six-shooter. Entering the tent, he drawled in passing, “Say, what does this Bernhardt gal do anyway, sing or dance?”
In his timely new biography, Sarah: The Life of Sarah Bernhardt (Yale University Press, 233 pages, $25), Robert Gottlieb traces the meteoric, improbable, epic life of the illegitimate daughter of a high-flying Paris courtesan who became the most famous actress in theater history. On her American success Gottlieb quotes expatriate American novelist Henry James, who had caught her act early on in London and realized he was seeing a phenomenon more than a mere actress. “I strongly suspect that she will find a triumphant career in the Western world,” James wrote presciently. “She is too American not to succeed in America.”
Besides her talent and dramatic technique, what James was referring to was Sarah’s indomitable will to succeed and her precocious knack for self-promotion, creating the first international personality cult. Gottlieb describes the spell she cast over the great and good of the day: A smitten Mark Twain contended there were five kinds of actresses: bad, fair, good, great — “and then there is Sarah Bernhardt”; railway magnate William Henry Vanderbilt attended every one of her New York performances one season, weeping openly into a large handkerchief; Sigmund Freud, who kept a photo of her in his waiting room, fell for her “[a]fter the first words of her lovely, vibrant voice.” In Saint Petersburg, where they ran a red carpet over the snow to the stage door, Czar Alexander III called on her after a command performance at the Winter Palace. As she was making a deep curtsy, he stopped her: “No, Madame,” he ordered, “it is I who must bow to you.” And so he did before his entire court.
It was all enough to make Sarah the most celebrated woman of the Victorian era besides — and maybe including — Queen Victoria herself. The Divine, The Eighth Wonder of the World, as she was often called, was the first to create outsized, mythical, Beatlesmania stardom. When Variety listed the 100 top showbiz figures of the 20th century, she was number one as “the first superstar-diva.”
SARAH BERNARD, as she was initially known, was born in the early 1840s (the official birth records were lost) in Paris, the illegitimate daughter of a woman of dubious morals from Amsterdam and an unknown, probably French, father. Pathologically skinny, she was emotionally unstable and sickly. At 15 she overheard doctors telling her mother that she had only a few years to live. Death became an obsession, and she asked for a pretty coffin so she could get used to it. The resulting rosewood and satin model became one of the many stage props in her life; countless postcard photos of her lying in the flower-strewn casket were sold in Europe and America.
Her mother, Julie, busy with her male patrons, turned her over to a succession of nurses and boarding schools for the few years of formal education she received. A high-strung, rebellious enfant terrible, she seemed fit for nothing but her mother’s profession until the Duc de Morny, one of Julie’s wealthy lovers and Emperor Napoléon III’s half brother, suggested sending her to the Paris Conservatory. When Morny got the teenager a seat at the Comédie Française, Sarah sobbed uncontrollably at the drama: the girl who would become the last of the great Romantic actresses was hooked on the theater.
Gottlieb tells us that she was “a dedicated — some say obsessive — student” at the Conservatory, then considered the world’s finest drama school. It was solid training, but mostly a bore for Sarah, who relied on instinct and raw emotion. Her trademark became extravagant acting in the grand, three-hanky style, running the gamut of tigerish passion, melting seduction, and unbearable sorrow. She didn’t walk across the stage, she glided as if on little wheels. Descending a spiral staircase she made magical: “It was as though she remained immobile and the staircase turned around her,” marveled one critic.
As a young woman she could turn herself into an 80-year-old crone, simulating blindness by showing only the whites of her eyes. And she convincingly played the 19-year-old Joan of Arc when she was 65. Sarah even played some 25 male parts, from Prince Charming to Cyrano de Bergerac, Judas, and, most controversially, Hamlet. True to her own character, her Hamlet was resolute and determined. “All his philosophizing and temporary hesitation does not alter the basis of his character,” she explained.
Her technique had to be good, for she was no great beauty. In a day of opulent, Rubensesque women, she was skeletal. She’s so thin that when she swallows a pill, she looks pregnant, boulevard wits said. “When she takes a bath, the level of the water goes down,” went one caricature. But she had what Victor Hugo called a golden voice. And those startling, enigmatic eyes that, the author writes, “changed color, from gray to green to blue, depending on her mood….The effect is mysterious, intense. She looks like no one else in the world.”
In an age when actress was virtually synonymous with courtesan/kept woman, Sarah also played that role with panache. Gottlieb writes that she formed “what might be best described as a consortium of wealthy and powerful men, who shared her favors consensually and without rancor.” Her platonic admirers ranged from writers like Zola, Flaubert, and Oscar Wilde, to statesmen like Gambetta, the Prince of Wales, U.S. ambassador Myron T. Herrick, and Theodore Roosevelt.
To be received chez Sarah was to act in a play she herself staged. In her Paris townhouse her furnishings included a skull on her desk and an anatomical skeleton named Lazarus, plus the famous coffin in which, gossips said, she received her lovers. She welcomed visitors reclining on a cushion-strewn divan on a raised dais canopied with oriental hangings. Padding around her was a menagerie that could include her enormous wolfhound Osman, a friendly lynx on a leash, and a baby tigress named Minette.
BUT SOME OF SARAH’S greatest roles were played in real life. When Jewish army captain Alfred Dreyfus was unjustly sentenced to Devil’s Island in 1894 on trumped-up, anti-Semitic charges of treason, Sarah took his side against most French popular opinion. Though many of her friends stopped talking to her, she helped persuade Emile Zola to write his famous J’Accuse article that turned the tide in Dreyfus’s favor.
When spreading gangrene infected her right leg in 1915 as a result of osteoarthritis of the knee, doctors hesitated to amputate it because she was 71 and suffering from chronic uremia. They agreed after she threatened to shoot herself in the knee. Eschewing an artificial leg and wheelchair, she opted for a specially designed litter chair and was carried around like a Byzantine princess. She altered her stage business and kept on acting. (When showman P. T. Barnum cabled her offering $10,000 for the leg, she shot back, “If it’s my right leg you want, see the doctors; if it’s the left leg, see my manager in New York.”)
After the amputation she visited the hellish WWI front lines near Verdun to perform for French troops in mess tents, hospital wards, and ramshackle barns. Propped in an armchair, she recited a patriotic piece to war-dazed men back from the trenches. When she ended with a rousing “Aux armes!” clutching the French tricolor, they rose cheering and sobbing.
When Sarah suddenly collapsed in the spring of 1923 at the age of 78, all Paris theaters observed two minutes of silence. Parisians thronged the streets as her monumental funeral procession wound its way to Père Lachaise cemetery, where Molière and her admirers Marcel Proust and Oscar Wilde were buried. In contrast to the famous cemetery’s ornate tombs with flowery inscriptions, only two words were needed to adorn the simple granite slab of the first superstar: Sarah Bernhardt.